Saturday, February 25, 2017

Pilobolus' Shadowland: a Creative Coup

by Susan Kepecs
I was primed to like Pilobolus’ Shadowland, at the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Shannon Hall last Thursday night (Feb. 23), if only because it’s a dog story done in dance, and I’m a dancer dog person. But the production exceded my expectations by miles. I’d expected it to be slick and commercial – a bag of stunning technical tricks à la Momix, maybe. But Shadowland turned out to be much more than a steady flow of luxuriant images. Pilobolus has a wide-open concept of theater that lets everything hang out. In a word, as the company’s creative director, Mark Fucik, told me in a pre-show interview (, Pilobolus’ work is accessible. And that’s the truth from head to toe. Shadowland isn’t all done in shadow, but it’s staged so you can see, more or less, how its startlingly eloquent shadows are done. The process involves multiple screens, spots, flashlights, and tons of low-tech props (styrofoam lobsters!) that sit out onstage for the audience to see before and after the 80 minute show. And the story – dreamlike, simpatico, a feast of constant edge-of-your-seat action – leaves room for everyone to read in their own references.
In that story – which bears metaphorical resemblance to the perilous pre-adoption life history of my own beloved rescue pooch – a typical teenage girl (who we first see at home, lit from the front) is transformed (back-lit, behind the main screen) into a little prick-eared terrier. Dog Girl (Heather Jeane Favretto, whose grasp of dog behavior is phenomenal) runs away from home and experiences a string of dreamlike, mostly behind-the-screen, done-in-shadow adventures. She’s chased by crazed cooks wielding meat cleavers; she slays a fearsome dinosaur in a cave; she jumps off a cliff and finds herself deep undersea (a Spongebob Squarepants-like segment that reminds you the story was written by Steven Banks, that show’s lead writer); she falls in love with a centaur.
When Favretto’s behind the screen, she’s more dog than girl – sometimes dog from head to tail, others a girl with a terrier’s head. She’s touchingly, puppyishly curious. She snatches things, devilishly, from a pot-smoking cowboy who picks her up on the highway. Her ears flap happily in the wind as she rides shotgun in his pickup, window rolled down. Sometimes she travels alone; when she’s scared, she licks a paw and whines. When the screen rolls up and you see her without the snout and ears that shadowcasting let her make, she’s just a girl in a nightgown, but the dog’s still there; kidnapped by a front-lit sadistic circus with a whip-cracking dominatrix she jumps through hoops hesitantly, like a scared puppy, fists closed like paws.
Dog Girl’s dream is built on its shadow chase scenes, in which the dancers achieve spatial magic through sleights of movement and perspective created by manipulating light, props, and positioning behind the screen. The viewer perceives the field of action as being much larger than the proscenium arch stage on which it takes place.
Pilobolus’ dancers are people-shaped, not ballerina-shaped, which, like everything else about this production, renders it broadly accessible. But these are marvelously fluid and daring movers. Often, as if to underscore the idea that she’s floating in a transitional state of consciousness, other dancers carry Favretto, supine, through space, raising and lowering her as she arches and contracts like a wave-tossed jellyfish. In one front-of-screen passage she’s caught, repeatedly, mid-leap, by one of the men. Intercepting her trajectory creates a little rebound effect at the top of her arc that’s accentuated by her pedaling legs. It’s like she’s flying through space in slow motion.
The production’s lush, versatile score, by songwriter / film composer David Poe, changes moods to fit Shadowland’s shifting scenes, and sometimes has words that subtly push the plot. The end of the story finds Favretto safe at home, neither dog nor shadow. Delighted, she spins, arms out, head tossed back, to a haunting, minor-key melody with the allusive lyrics “if it gives you joy, it gives you joy, and you don’t have to explain it,” which I still can’t get out of my head.
That might have been enough, but then there was the coda. Pilobolus famously tailors Shadowland’s finale for every one of the hundreds of cities around the globe that the show’s played in since its 2009 debut. So I expected a nod – a shadow Capitol, maybe. But when the screen rolled down again Dog Girl was in Manhattan, a small silhouette among skyscrapers. She wolfed a street cart hot dog; she saw the Statue of Liberty, emblazoned with the words “refugees welcome” (the audience cheered). She rode the subway, danced in a nightclub. She jumped in another truck, with another guy, and cruised the Interstate (to lyrics that went “everywhere we go, we call it home”), finally landing in Wisconsin. And there was the shadow Capitol, beautifully done, Lady Rennebohm perched prominently on top. But that’s not all. Union Terrace chairs, Bucky Badger, and Bascom Hall’s east façade (yes, with Abe Lincoln in front) cast their shadows. So did a protest march; the cast carried signs that read “Protect Trans Students,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “Thanks.” The marchers danced, and jumped for joy – and there was cheese. The audience roared.
There’s something enormously powerful, especially now, about seeing what you care about rendered in art. Shadowland caught it all and tossed it back at us, larger than life – humanity, dogdom, progressive values, our city. I’m not a crier, so I was surprised to find myself in tears as the house lights went up.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

An Interview with Mark Fucik, Creative Director of Pilobolus' Acclaimed "Shadowland"

                                                            © Ian Douglas, courtesy of Pilobolus
The first time I ever saw the dance company Pilobolus was at the Wisconsin Union Theater, way back near the beginning – it was 1975, and the company was in its fourth year.  “Pilobolus,” biologically speaking, is a genus of fungi that grow on, well, cow poop – perhaps an odd name for a dance troupe, but I clearly remember thinking that Pilobolus was the best thing I’d ever seen.  I’d taken some classes with multimedia modern dance master Alwin Nikolais, and I was astounded at the way Pilobolus used the very Nikolaisian concept of a group of dancers as a single living organism. But Pilobolus’ version was better – a new, pure form of modern dance with startling agility, blessedly free from the trappings of sets and costumes.  I’ve seen Pilobolus various times since, though it never again captured my imagination the way it did that first time.  That said, I haven’t seen Shadowland, a multimedia dance theater piece that premiered in 2009 (in collaboration with Steven Banks, lead writer for the clever animated TV show Spongebob Squarepants, and singer-songwriter / film composer David Poe).  Shadowland, an international hit, comes to the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Shannon Hall on Feb. 23. 
Pilobolus has won its share of awards, and also done its share of TV commercials – in fact, Shadowland evolved from a Hyundai ad done as shadow play. Today Shadowland, which toured Europe for nearly a decade before coming home to play in the states, has a sequel – Shadowland 2: The New Adventure, which premiered recently in Germany.  All of this seemed too slick for my bohemian, anticapitalist taste – and yet, after watching a dozen or so YouTube extracts I’m pretty much prepared to fall in love with this narrative, full-length dance theater piece, with its central character, Dog Girl – a girl who’s transformed partly into a puppy.  So, OK, I’ll admit it – the shadow dance pup looks a lot like the goofy little terrier genius who lives with me and owns my heart.
I also got to talk to Shadowland creative director Mark Fucik about the show a couple of weeks ago.  Fucik – personable and enthusiastic on the phone – let me in on some of what goes on behind this incredibly complex show.  After that conversation, I’m even more excited to see it. 

CulturalOyster: You have a long history with the company – how did you first come to Pilobolus, and what’s changed since you started?

Fucik: I’ve been with the company fifteen years.  I kind of fell into it.  I started dancing late – I was a theater major in college, at Rutgers, and I took some dance classes.  I met a visiting alum who was working with Pilobolus – she’d never seen me dance, but she said I should audition for the company.  When I saw what they did it blew me away – the amalgamation of theater with dance, and how you can tell such an incredible story with movement.
            The company’s always worked as a collective, but one thing that’s changed since I came is that we’re now bringing in more collaborators, and not just dance people – magicians and writers and musicians as well as outside choreographers.  We like to bring people in to see what we can innovate with their input. 

CulturalOyster: You’re listed as the creative director for Shadowland.  How does that work?  Since Pilobolus is organized as a collective, did everyone have a hand in the choreography?

Fucik: Yeah – our work is always made through collaborative effort. I’m the creative director of Shadowland now, which means I’m in charge of multiple tours and making sure every one is up to par – theater spaces are all different, so when things arrive on the road I troubleshoot.  I move things around to solve problems.  But I was one of the dancers in the original cast.  The vision was pushed forward in 2008 by one of the company’s founders, Robbie Barnett [now its charter artistic director], in collaboration with Steven Banks and David Poe and the dancers in that first group.  Poe was there in the studio, writing music as we danced.  We’d watch videos of what we did and he’d create music for the movement.  The work comes from all of us, through improvisation.  

CulturalOyster: Your dancers are very athletic, and very contemporary – what kind of training do you do as a company?

Fucik: One of the things that’s great about Pilobolus is that it was started by four guys without a dance background, which is why what we do reaches all audiences.  Our dancers come from all over – we look for people with great body awareness, for people who are intuitive. Sometimes they’re modern dancers, or martial arts practitioners, or sometimes they’re just just good movers who work with us and eventually get into the company.  
Nothing can prepare you for what Pilobolus asks you to do. We don’t do any particular technique – all of our training comes during the work, from rehearsing our pieces.  We rehearse 9 to 5 Monday through Friday, and if we’re not rehearsing a piece, we’re improvising.  You’re using your body the whole time, finding out how it moves with other people and through space. 

CulturalOyster: From the videos I’ve seen of Shadowland it’s clear that Pilobolus’  original, organic concept is still there, though the contexts of the choreography, at least in this case, are much more narrative, far less abstract.  On the heels of Shadowland’s great success, there’s a sequel – so in general, is the company moving away from repertory works and toward story productions?  

Fucik:  Not really.  Shadow was one thing we wanted to explore, and Shadowland 2 came about because we figured we were having success so lets make another one. But we’re still making pure, simple dance pieces.  We did a trio a couple of years ago, “On the Nature of Things,” that goes back to the basic roots of Pilobolus, the connection with other human beings – creating an organism and moving through space.  That’s always awed me about the company; it’s sacred, and we always come back to it.  Right now we’re in the swing of getting back to that – getting the company to think outside the box about what these human sculptures are and what they lead us to think and feel.

CulturalOyster: Getting back to Shadowland, rear projecting behind a scrim to make shadows is ancient technology, but making it work for a production like Shadowland involves all sorts of manipulations and movements that are different from dance, per se.  What kind of knowledge or training – besides movement skills – do your dancers need to do this kind of work?

Fucik: Everyone in Shadowland ends up learning new skills.  There’s a huge learning curve when you first get in front of the projector and start making shadows.  It’s not a straight trajectory – you have to learn to move in a way that reads as a two-dimensional image.  When I step into this light, what does it read like on screen?  What happens when we stack our bodies vertically, or horizontally?  What’s in the space between the projector and the screen?  Will this read as the head of a seahorse, or a lion?  You may work with someone 25 feet away to make one shadow onscreen.  One contorted body makes a weird shape by itself, but with other bodies it makes an elephant, or a horse.  You can’t prepare for that, you have to learn it on the job.  It takes a lot more than putting your hands together to form a bird.   

CulturalOyster: What about your technical approach to shadow – this isn’t lantern-lit Balinese shadow puppetry!

Fucik:  What we do is an amalgamation of modern dance and live shadowmaking.  Our take on shadows is that the way we roll into them and make composite, moving images, is the technique’s beauty.  It’s not always the end shape that’s most important, it’s how you get from one point to another.  That’s the dancing – that’s what makes it mysterious and keeps people engaged and excited. 
But when we started making the piece we realized that just watching shadow all the time can get boring.  So we said let’s do what we do – let’s do some modern dance.  So it’s not just dancing behind the screen with a single light source.  Sometimes the dancers are behind the screen and then it’s rolled back and they’re using handheld screens or partial screens.  There are parts done mostly in front of the screen, with stage lighting, but other times the dancers are in charge of light as well as shadow – we use flashlights a lot.  We call the dancers shadowcasters.

CulturalOyster: Where does the Shadowland story come from?

Fucik: It found itself, through hours and hours of improv and seeing what we could do with shadow.  It became apparent that the shadows were two dimensional, like cartoons, so we looked at Japanese anime and then it hit us that we were telling a coming of age story, sort of like Alice in Wonderland, with a lesson to be learned.  And Steve Banks is a master storyteller – he came in and helped us find where the story went.  It turned out to be about a girl who is finding out who she is as a person; she has to go through “Shadowland” to find out what’s important to her. 

CulturalOyster: Lots of contemporary performing troupes are using the ancient Asian artform of shadow theater – maybe most famously Julie Taymor incorporated it into Lion King, but the company Momix, a Pilobolus offshoot, does it too. There’s obviously a mysterious power in using shadows to tell a story, but because of that power the shadow approach has a lot of commercial appeal, which Pilobolus famously exploits.  In fact your use of shadow got its start as a Hyundai commercial, right? 

Fucik: Yes – we used our bodies to make a car in silhouette. 

CulturalOyster: So I have to wonder – the original Pilobolus was so un-commercial in its approach – how does the overlap between high art and high capitalism impact the organization?

Fucik: We were approached to do the car commercial, and it was a challenge.  The company said hey, you guys have always been great at taking the human form and creating sculptures – so we made a car, and then we tried to push our thinking on what we can do with our bodies in terms of shadowcasting. 
And as every dance company will tell you, we’re all trying to make money to stay alive, especially with what we’re looking at for the next four years!  Endowments will be cut – we’re trying to stay afloat.  Doing commercials allows us to make the art we want to make.  Every dancer, every actor in New York can tell you you have to take the job that makes you money to do the works you want to do. 
But whether we’re doing TV ads or a theater piece, Pilobolus is incredibly accessible.  The movement we do comes from everyday life, we find it in improvisation with each other – and we keep that spirit of not trying to be so serious about our art that people leave the theater and say they didn’t get what they just saw. So we reach a lot of people, which is great. 

CulturalOyster: I’m blown away by what I’ve seen online of Dog Girl – there’s something so touching about it, and she looks so doggy – she can get that shadow to do just what my own dog does.  Is there just one dancer – according to your website, Heather Jean Favretto – who always does this role?  I get the sense that she’s totally into the story while she’s doing it.  Is she a dog person in real life?

Fucik: She didn’t originate the role, she’s the third generation of Dog Girl.  In fact, now we have two Dog Girls, though in Madison it’ll be Heather who does it.  It can be taught, but it takes a lot of practice and attention to detail – the way the dancers make the dog head and sustain it – it’s a lot of hard work.

CulturalOyster: Is Favretto a dog person in real life?

Fucik: She doesn’t own a dog!  She likes dogs, but you can’t have one if you’re always touring.  But like any good theater person you study a role, and if you’re Dog Girl you study little dogs.

CulturalOyster: Is it true or just a rumor that Shadowland ends with a coda that reflects each city the show goes to?  That’s a lot of extra work – how many cities, in total, has it played in?  Will you do something unique for Madison?

Fucik: Yes – for every city we take the time to craft a special thank you in our finale, so if you were to see us in one city and then in another you wouldn’t see the exact same ending you saw before.  We think it’s something audiences enjoy, and we enjoy doing it for them. 
As for the number of cities – the show opened in 2009 and now it’s 2017 – it’s been many, many cities and countries.  This is its first big US tour!  It’s traveled mostly outside the States – we did Germany, Australia, Asia, the Middle East – all before the States.

CulturalOyster: Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you want my readers to know?

Fucik: Just come open to experience anything – with Pilobolus you never know what you’re going to get.  We go from funny to serious to heartbreaking in a heartbeat.  Come ready to engage yourself.
                                                                                                      interview by SK

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Madison Ballet's "Bare," Last Week at the Bartell

Quirk, in "Limelight  © Kat Stiennon 2017
by Susan Kepecs
I went to see Madison Ballet’s repertory concert, Bare, at the Bartell last Saturday afternoon (Feb. 4).  Like all of the company’s performances so far this season, Bare was a mixed bag.
The show was supposed to open with the pas de deux from artistic director W. Earle Smith’s 2011 “Palladio,” which, for Bare, he had set on Annika Reikersdorfer and Shea Johnson.  Unfortunately for the small company Reikersdorfer was out with an injury, and no one else would do – so the pas was postponed till the season’s final performance of the season on March 31 – April 1. 
Bare opened instead with the program’s pièce de resistance – “Limelight,” a beautifully turned new wave neoclassical ballet that marked Johnson’s debut as a choreographer. This sparkly piece had an easy, love-to-dance look that defied its choreographic complexity; its music comes from Charlie Chaplin movies, its movement vocabulary from Balanchine, Robbins, and Bournonville. 
Limelight’s structure is like a sandwich, with opening and closing pas de deux for Johnson and Madison Ballet reigning queen Shannon Quirk, the first pas featuring variations for each and a tender waltz, the second a showcase of breath-catching lifts.  These two dancers are like magic together, their work brimming with confidence and rich with musical nuance. 
In between the two pas sits a flowing, varied corps section built on threes – pas de six for three couples, (in one such segment, the men lifting the women into second position splits and then tossing them over their shoulders), men’s dances (for three), women’s dances (for three) – and an adorable, flirtatious, finger-snapping pas de trois in which Kristin Hammer lept onto the stage, flicking come-hither feet; Andrew Erickson and Jackson Warring swaggered after her, and, catching her, daringly tossed her back and forth. 

Quirk, in "Grit," in a pas with Erickson
© Kat Stiennon 2017
On the heels of that balletic beginning I was jarred by the hard-edged “Somewhere Between Grit and Grace,” the third piece New York and Chicago-based urban contemporary choreographer Jacqueline Stewart has set on Madison Ballet. This jagged work for six dancers (four women on pointe, two men) had a mismatched soundtrack, harsh light, and inexplicable costumes – what were those white heiroglyphs bordering the brief black dance outfits on Hammer and Kelanie Murphy, why was the number 83 plastered across Quirk’s chest, and why was Catherine Rogers, whose dancing in this piece was minimal, wearing an enormous red skirt?
And yet, at the center of this odd piece was Quirk, showing off her tremendous contemporary chops, moving creaturelike, the way the dancers in Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet do, snaking along the stage in a crouch, then suddenly, like a sped-up time lapse of a growing organism, shooting up onto pointe.  She’s spectacular.  You can’t take your eyes off her. 

"Re-Place" © Kat Stiennon 2017

UW-Madison Dance Department chair Jin-Wen Yu’s “Re-Place” was by far the best of the three pieces he’s set on Madison Ballet over the last few years.  Yu, a postmodernist, can be masterfully musical, like the great ballet choreographers – and “Re-Place” is the most musical work I've seen from him since the middle of the last decade, when he was working with two marvelous dancers in his own company at the time, Collette Stewart and Yun-Chen Liu.  In the staccato, allegro “Re-Place,” five Madison Ballet dancers – Erickson, Murphy, Rogers, Warring, and Mia Sanchez, wearing plain black dancewear -- read like notes on a clef, popping in and out of synch.  Warring and Erickson leapfrogged over each other in a particularly playful pas, but the standout here was Murphy, spritelike and pert.  In a bright pas de deux she balanced horizontally across Warring's strong shoulders, one leg pointing skyward; in a later section she whipped off a string of her famous fouette turns, then flipped jauntily over his back.

Smith revisited his 2014 season finale, “Groovy,” an ode to the hippie ‘60s with day-glo costumes and a score of (mostly) bubblegum hits supporting twenty-plus minutes of solos, pas de deux, and ensenble numbers. The company gave it all up for this piece, though too many of "Groovy"’s dances were bland and repetitive. The full ensemble movements were uniformly bouncy, and consisted mostly of unison work – and most of the solos, taking up the full two to three minute span of the original 45 rpm songs, would have been better if they’d been half as long.  A solo for Rogers to the metaphorical marijuana tune “Green Grass,” in which she stumbled around as if retchingly drunk (c’mon, to a song about pot?), should have been cut altogether.
Other numbers were much better. “Color my World,” set on Mia Sanchez, was balletic and well delivered.  Hammer and Erickson were light and free dancing to to “Everybody Loves a Clown,” and the timing sometimes stretched beyond the anemic beat, adding a bit of creative tension to this little pas de deux. 
Taken one by one the many little dances in “Groovy” seemed disparate in 2014, but this time around – a big change, and a saving grace – the work as a whole was loosely structured around Quirk and Johnson, their romantic narrative strung like random beads among the rest of the dances. From the original "Groovy" Quirk reprised her loose, free-spirited dance to the Byrds’ version of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” She reveled in her powerhouse strength to Leslie Gore’s 1964 chart topper “You Don’t Own Me;' the dance was a shining example of the Smith / Quirk collaboration, with its trademark chugs and arabesque turns.  And Johnson and Quirk miraculously managed to carry off a true neoclassical pas de deux – lots of syncopation and tricky lifts – to the insipid Liverpool pop tune “Ferry Cross the Mersey.”  Hallelujah for that. 
Quirk, in Groovy © Kat Stiennon 2017